By Professor Clive Barstow
Welcome to NiTRO edition 26, the first edition for 2020 in which we investigate ideas of change and how we envision the past, present and future within a dynamic higher education sector here in Australia.
As we all know, change is inevitable and to ignore it can mean extinction. Ignoring change would relegate the creative arts into the back room of a dusty museum along with the dinosaurs that were once so powerful but now offer only the skeletons of time past. For those who attempt to categorise the arts as an inanimate specimen of historical importance, their actions can only result in fixing it in time, through which we limit its opportunity to contribute to a future that provides a better quality of life for us all. This is often born out in Australia’s rush to form a singular national identity at a time when global hybrid and plural communities are being formed at an increasing rate. A nostalgic Arcadian museum model of cultural Australia denies our real history and ignores the potential of the arts both as a conveyor of change and as a marker of what might lay ahead. Hanna Fink and Hetti Perkins’s description of the fluid nature of Aboriginal art probably comes closest to defining the indefinable: “Aboriginal Art is a protean phenomenon, a way of introducing change to maintain continuity”[i].
Change and continuity might seem like an oxymoron but for the arts it is fundamental to our understanding and expression of time and place, and one that is inclusive. The very nature of reflexive praxis depends on continuity but it is often the case that studio practice, as a relatively uneconomical and unconventional form of learning in the corporate University, is the one that is constantly in need of defending. While artists, designers, filmmakers and musicians regularly adopt new technologies and alternative ways of learning with ease, sustained practice remains sacrosanct.
The arts have always innovated, and often to survive an education system that has in the past clearly disadvantaged them both in terms of recognition and associated funding. But there are signs of positive change: The DDCA on behalf of all the practice-led creative disciplines has driven major changes to the categorisation of research codes and definitions as part of the 2019/20 ANZSRC review. In addition, ACUADS have made a strong submission to the government for equivalence funding for arts research resulting in HERDC now acknowledging NTO’s as funded research. These two gains are highly significant in our evolution as drivers for increased funding by the ARC and as enablers for co-funding from industry partnerships, both of which blossomed in the UK once the arts were given equal status in the HEFCE[ii].
However, change can often be a case of two steps forward, three steps back. Tim Cahill in his contribution to this edition lays out some stark predictions about the future of research portfolios in our Universities, based on profit and loss and its dependency on a presumption of continual growth in student income. The recent events with the devastating bushfires in Australia and the growing concerns of the global effects of the COVID-19 virus show how exposed the Australian economy and the education sectors are to international student income. Beyond the long-term effects of this virus, we must also acknowledge that South East Asia is becoming less reliant on Australian education as we move forward. China reportedly is building one new university each week and shifting its focus from manufacturing and distribution to a creative economy that through demand will mirror to some extent western approaches to creative education. While this offers opportunities to our Universities in the short term, it is clear that if the Australian Higher Education sector does not prepare for this change, they too will become a lonely Tyrannosaurus, the mightiest of the dinosaurs that buried its head in the sand. As Cahill points out, the relationship between teaching and research is critical to our basic funding model and as such we need to look at diversifying our research and externalising our funding sources. This presents both threats and opportunities for the arts.
Interestingly, one of the oldest forms of living species that can be genetically traced back to the dinosaur is the bee hummingbird. The smallest living bird on earth (the same size as the bee itself), this colourful and stunningly beautiful bird defied history by flying unnoticed, and by constantly adapting to change. It has always been and always will be an essential component in our food chain without which life might not exist. Symbolically, through its sweet poetic song the hummingbird appears out of nowhere – bringing joy. A lesson in protean survival for the arts if ever there was one!
I hope you enjoy this edition of NiTRO and continue to contribute to our ongoing dialogue surrounding the importance of the arts in Australia.
[i] Frink, Hanna, and Hetti Perkins. 2005. “Writing for the Land.” Art and Australia 35:60–63.